by Masayuki Ishikawa; adapted by Stephen Paul
published by Del Rey Manga; $10.99 US
When I heard that the premise of this manga was a guy who could talk to germs, I expected cute humor. Instead, what I got was a typical coming-of-age story, only with some surprisingly gross moments.
Tadayasu is headed off to agricultural college in Tokyo, accompanied by childhood friend Kei. The two young men are ready to start their lives as adults, figuring out what to be and how to chart their future. Tadayasu is a typical guy, except that he can see and communicate with bacteria. That’s come in handy for the family business, growing a particular kind of mold used as a starter for fermented items like sake and soy sauce, and serves as the basis for the title, which loosely means “mold cultivator”.
On their first day at school, they’re notified of a missing student, after which Tadayasu finds a large dead object by following a trail of germs. It turns out to be a crazy professor’s snack, the dead body of a seal left to ferment with a stomach full of decaying sea birds. The birds’ slimy insides are sucked out as a delicacy. The professor has a fondness for similar nausea-inducing foods, all formed through unusual bacterial action. Unsurprisingly, he’s also going to be Tadayasu’s teacher.
The art style is mostly realistic, often with impressive detail and shading, until it comes to the germs, circles with dot eyes and random stick appendages. The professor is similarly simplified, with minimal features and glasses that hide his eyes. That caricatured portrayal adds to his oddness, making him seem more a force than a character.
I expected more interaction between Tadayasu and the germs, but instead, they’re mostly a plot device to get him into some awkward situation. For example, after proving his ability to the professor, who wants to use him to make some new discovery, he catches two other students bootlegging sake in an attempt to get rich quick. They want to use Tadayasu’s talent for more of their schemes. Also part of the cast is an older student, who although involved in academia, always dresses as though she’s about to go clubbing: short, tight skirt, studded belt, high-heeled boots.
My favorite scene was when the two young men first enter the other students’ apartment, full of clouds of Tadayasu’s little friends showing how disgusting the college students’ habits are. Also contributing to the humor (and the book’s wordiness) are the author’s marginal notes, explaining the bacteria. Additional endnotes are very helpful in understanding the cultural references.
As the book goes on, Tadayasu prevents E.coli poisoning at a field trip picnic and listens to various of the professor’s lectures on how beneficial bacteria are. He also learns more about making sake and cheese. While I appreciated the education, much of the humor in this book was too frat-boy for me. I would have liked to have seen more of Tadayasu as a person instead of a walking plot device, and more attention paid to the germs instead of the wacky college students. If you have a stronger stomach, the humor may be more to your taste. Either way, you’ll learn a lot about microbes. (The publisher provided a review copy.)